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Hundreds gather in Boston with a united message: Syrian refugees welcome

Shevin Sheikhmous and Omar Shweish, standing outside Boston’s State House, say Syrians are victims of terrorism and are hungry for a chance to live in safety. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

At a rally on Boston Common, supporters of Syrian refugees ‘refuse to close the door on people escaping violence.’

If there is one thing Americans should understand about Syrians, said Omar Shweish, it’s this: Syrians are overwhelmingly the victims of terror.

That’s the message he shared outside the State House in Boston Friday night where hundreds of people gathered in a rally of solidarity for Syrian refugees following a week of increasingly anti-refugee sentiment. The recent attacks in Paris that left 129 people dead have exacerbated fears in the US about the potential for similar strikes if terrorists find a way to pose as refugees to gain entrance here. Those concerns have triggered a barrage of calls to restrict resettlement of refugees in the US.

Last week, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that tightens controls in the resettlement program, essentially blocking Syrian refugees from seeking asylum here.  Called the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, or the SAFE Act of 2105, the bill mandates that the heads of three federal agencies—the FBI, Homeland Security, and National Intelligence—certify that each refugee admitted here is not a threat to US security.

“This legislation is highly unlikely to make America any safer, and will instead effectively bring our successful and longstanding bipartisan resettlement process to a halt,” warned Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser shortly after the vote. “National security is not an either or proposition – the refugee resettlement process currently in place is already incredibly thorough, with refugees facing multiple levels of background checks and investigation that make them by far the most scrutinized people coming into our country. The system has been regularly refined and improved in the years since September 11th, including changes to account for the particular realities of the conflict in Syria.”

The proposed legislation goes to the Senate next where Democratic leaders reportedly will try to stop it. The White House has also signaled its intention to veto the act. Oxfam is urging supporters to pick up the phone, call their members of Congress, and urge them to oppose any effort to dismantle the refugee resettlement program.

Also last week, 27 Republican governors wrote a letter to the White House petitioning the Obama administration to suspend the US Syrian refugee resettlement program, according to the State House News Service. Though Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts was not among those signing the letter, his reticence earlier in the week about resettlement of refugees in the state sparked outrage in some quarters, and lead to Friday night’s rally. 

‘Stand with refugees’

Kofi Bosque Hamilton joins others from Oxfam America at Friday’s rally outside the Boston State House in support of Syrian refugees. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

With signs declaring “Refugees welcome in MA” and asking “Where is our humanity,” hundreds of Syrian supporters, including a contingent from Oxfam America, crowded on Boston Common in a pool of darkness at the base of the broad stairway leading to Beacon Street. Above them, with its gold dome shimmering, the State House stood remote and bathed in light, framed beneath the stripes and green stars of a Syrian flag waved by one of the protestors.

“We refuse to close the door on people escaping violence and seeking safety for themselves and their loved ones,” said a Facebook message posted before the event by organizers that included the Muslim Justice League, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Unitarian Universalist Mass Action Network.

“The people fleeing Syria are looking for a second chance,” said Shweish, “[and] not having to consider the possibility of being in great danger every day of their lives.”

Standing in the glow of the State House with his wife, Shevin Sheikhmous, a dentist, the couple talked about the threats she received while working in a medical clinic after the original protests broke out in Syria.

“Don’t be scared of the Syrian people,” Sheikhmous said. “The people who are coming, they are the ones affected by terrorism. They know how hard it is to be kicked out of their country. They’ll be really thankful to get a second chance.”

For Basma Alloush, a Syrian asylum seeker, Friday night’s rally may have restored some of her hope that a second chance for her countrymen might be possible.

“It’s beautiful,” she said of the throng spilling through the Common. “Especially after such ugliness and hate.”

Urge your members of Congress to oppose restrictions on the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

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